It stands to reason, but it is still striking for us rootless and shifting human types to learn that it is possible to see, and so believe, that the life living in a place is made from that place, built from it, made literally out of it. If you catch a great reed warbler on migration in an Italian reed bed and scrutinise the stable isotope constitution of its feathers you can read back in time to another place with astonishing pinpoint accuracy – the place on the bird’s wintering and moulting grounds in sub-Saharan Africa where the warbler grew the feathers that it wears through its European summer. The chemistry of the earth that fed the vegetation that fed the insects that fed the bird is written into its plumage. The warbler can only have come from one place and, wherever it goes, it is marked with this home scar. And if you know how to scan the codes there can be no doubt.
Released into our minds this knowledge must feed our imagination. In a hedge near my house in the Fens a whitethroat sings every summer; nearby a reed bunting, a year round resident, does the same. This year, hoping myself to keep going a little longer, I ran past the singing birds on a fitness circuit every other day. The songs of the two passed into my panting head and I heard them as rearrangements of the same sets of notes and, more than that, they sounded as if they had been transcribed from the matter of the place itself: the scratchy songs, like thorns picking at fabric, antique sounds, the bunting metallic like old pennies, the whitethroat chalky like its own underparts, both as if stitched from the bramble and the reed stems in the ditch at the field edge.
Might that be so? Could your song be shaped by the architecture of the place where you sing, be evolutionarily fashioned, like your feathers, by the stuff you live amongst? If you whisper in a windy place much of what you say will be lost. Wouldn’t it be good for your song therefore to fill your space, to carry at least as far as the end of your territory, which is the next hawthorn along the ditch? In a wood different acoustic rules apply. No amount of running will restore my almost dead ear sufficiently to allow me to hear anything other than the nearest of goldcrests and treecreepers. A treecreeper’s song is as fine and as thin as a needle and it barely carries beyond the tree that the treecreeper sings from. But that suits it – many treecreepers spend most of their lives on just a few neighbouring trunks. A goldcrest might cross the North Sea to escape the winter freeze of Scandinavia but it will exchange one fir or pine tree for another and there its utterances seem made to measure. Its fine fuse-wire calls carry only to the edge of the trees then fizz and die in the open air.
The fast flowing Onny curves around the base of the Long Mynd in Shropshire. It is often fat and furious after rain and slaps at its banks. If you stand then on the little road bridge over the river at Horderley it is hard to have a conversation without raising your voice. Grey wagtails breed under the bridge, dippers use rocks on either side
of it to sing from, kingfishers zip the midstream. There are otters too. I’ve seen their footprints on a sandy bend. Once I thought I heard one. To be heard themselves all these riverine animals must speak above the sound of the river. And it is striking, again, how these unrelated birds and mammals, have, to my ears at least, shared a cool silvery music, bright enough, sharp enough, to carry over the water. The kingfisher cuts a hiss, the dipper a watery ouzel, the grey wagtail chinks at a little metal anvil. They sing as they are and as they must at their home. Otters don’t say much but what they do is in keeping: a wet whistle.
All this leads me to where I want to be, where I was today, right at the end of November, running through a winter wood, threadbare and stark, at the lip of the Avon Gorge in west Bristol. Trees, famous rare and endemic whitebeams, climb down the limestone cliffs, when the wood slides and then tumbles and then falls apart towards the muddy river, but I am at the flat top next to a stand of a few more regular specimens, limes mostly. Their leaves have all dropped and their branches and twigs are once more scratching a winter living from grey skies. The wood seems entirely empty of warm life and there is little to report save this one scrap: at the top of the tallest lime is a mistle thrush. It is colourless in the dull afternoon light; even when it turns (what I know to be) its pale breast, I can see only that its shape looks softer than when it was facing away. But that is incidental and tiny somehow compared to the noise the thrush is making. And this is what all this is about. It is singing. A male declaring himself and his plot. And his song sounds like everything old and cold in the wood made into music, tempered just a little by a frosted memory of sweeter, warmer times. It comes from now, and then, but it looks ahead. Long before the winter solstice, long before the coldest nights and the shortest days, it is sending itself on, together with everything that has made it, sounding around the corners of the earth, beyond the tilt of the world, chanting the dozen trees of the twiggy wood on toward a deeper time. What will be tomorrow.
This is a time that we might share but rarely feel, in part because of the hectic now which our species specialises in, in part because tomorrow can only be made by the burning of today, and though this is how life lives we find it hard to take. All the time we feel it passing. The thrush is singing the past and the present towards the future. I hear long phrases of a thrown song that seems to have gathered all of the dead season together into a beautiful grey music: an account of what was and what is. But the thrush’s singing means what will be: a defended territory, a mate, a nest, eggs, young, and then singing it all, all over again.
Tim Dee is the author of Four Fields (Jonathan Cape). He also wrote The Running Sky a memoir of his life as a birdwatcher and is the co-editor (with Simon Armitage) of The Poetry of Birds. He has worked as a BBC radio producer for twenty-five years. He is at work on a book about the Spring.
For more woodland writings, see Common Ground’s broadsheet collaboration with The Woodland Trust, LEAF!